Economics By and For Human Beings
“Economics puts parameters on people’s utopias.”
Yes. That’s exactly it. That’s why the politicians hate economics. That’s why the media are so… selective in which economists they call on to talk about policy.
That’s why the economics departments in colleges are put down by the sociologists, philosophers, literature professors and just about everyone else who has romantic longings for a coerced utopia.
“The teachings of the principles of economics should inform as much on what not to do, perhaps even more than providing a guide to public action.”
That’s it again. Don’t control prices. Don’t socialize medicine. Don’t raise taxes. Don’t inflate the money supply. Don’t put up trade barriers. Don’t go to war. Economists just keep bursting people’s bubbles. And it’s because economists say these things that the ruling class wants them to shut up about.
It’s been going on for hundreds of years. Every generation for the past 500 years has seen the battle wage between those who want to use the power of the state to contort and distort the world to fit some daydream on one hand and the economists who have seen the futility in this manipulation and warn against it on the other.
The man who wrote those above words is Peter Boettke, economics professor at George Mason University. He is one of the nation’s leading producers of economists, having directed several dozen dissertations over 20 years and having spread his students to colleges and universities around the country and the world.
His new book, which ought to be read by every college student who secretly suspects that economics is not as dreary as they say, is Living Economics, just published by the Independent Institute. It’s a big book, but a luxurious read from Page 1 to 450.
The phrase “living economics” means two things: 1) economics is part of life whether we recognize it or not, and 2) economics is a living discipline, rooted in universal principles but always changing in nuance and application.
Professor Boettke’s purpose is to provide a guided tour through the profession as it is now and how he would like to see it changed. He does this by first explaining what got him interested in the science.
It turns out that he remembers the gas lines of the 1970s and recalls being amazed to discover that they were wholly manufactured by Washington policy. It was the price control of oil combined with inflationary pressures from bad monetary policy. Contrary to what the media mavens and politicians were saying at the time, it had nothing to do with producer greed, secret price manipulation or financial speculation.
That’s what did it for him. He realized that economics is woven into every aspect of our lives. It is inescapable. When the market is allowed to work, beauty and growth result. Humanity flourishes. When markets are truncated and hobbled, people suffer.
Then he realized how little public understanding there is of economics. And he realized that he could play a role in changing this. He has. His students are now teaching other students in six different Ph.D.-granting institutions, among dozens more institutions.
Here Boettke reflects on the decision to make economics his vocation. Economics as a reality in our world will exist whether there are people around to study and explain it or not. As a discipline, it was very late in developing, mostly during the High Middle Ages. And it came about precisely to elucidate the way the world works in order to prevent kings and other big shots from using force to interfere with its mechanisms.
As Boettke puts it, “We do not need to understand economics in order to experience the benefits of freedom of exchange and production. But we may very well need to understand economics in order to sustain and maintain the institutional framework that enables us to realize the benefits that flow from freedom of exchange and production.”
What follows this beginning material is a plunge straight into the core of what economics teaches. Boettke chooses a very engaging path. He tells the story through a series of intellectual biographies of the economists he most admires. We read about his teacher Hans Sennholz, about Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard (his chapter on Rothbard is particularly celebratory). He covers James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Perhaps the most-interesting sections are the ones that find “Austrianness” in unusual places — in the work of Kenneth Boulding, for example.
In contrast to most books on economics, this book is very warm and humane. He goes all out to describe economics as the science of human choice in the real world. The prose matches his intellectual sense. We are spared the usual academic pomp and the absurdities of trying to cram people and their spontaneous decisions into mechanical models. He never talks down to his readers. This reader found no showing off, no strutting around, no defensiveness or bickering. The prose and line of thinking are open and generous.
It’s no surprise that the Austrian School is at the core of the narrative. This figures into his choice of biography, of course. And it informs the whole of his worldview, accounts for why he is able to write about real-world problems and explains the failure of planning in such lucid terms.
At the same time, Boettke cautions: “The main thing that makes someone an Austrian is not the willingness to identify one’s work with that label, but the substantive propositions in economics that an economist identifies with.” With this in mind, he shows that Austrian ideas are very more widespread that one might suppose.
In general, Boettke attempts to show that the profession has lost much of the arrogance that it practiced from the 1930s through the 1970s. While methodological positivism and mathematical hubris still exist in form, he attempts to show that the old ways have shifted toward a greater emphasis on institutions and human choice. He detects the rise of a certain humility in the profession, which has made way for a broader and more-eclectic approach that includes even radical libertarians like Boettke himself.
A book like this will provide anyone vast insight into what economics has to offer the world of ideas. It is an excellent overview about what is great and what is awful in the profession today. But even when he criticizes, there is no anger; instead, there is conviction that openness and frankness is the best path to finding truth. I can’t think of a better good for an economics major to have on hand when the lecture content begins to depart from reality.
As for the author himself, I can’t add to what Israel Kirzner has already said (and I’m almost certain that Kirzner has never written an endorsement this over-the-top):
Living Economics is in many ways a remarkable book. The volume luminously reflects the amazing breadth of professor Boettke’s reading, and the deep and careful thoughtfulness with which he reads. But the true distinction of this volume consists of more than the profound economic understanding and wealth of deeply perceptive doctrinal-history observations that fill its pages. Its distinction consists in the delightful circumstances that these riches arise from and express Peter Boettke’s extraordinary intellectual generosity and unmatched intellectual enthusiasm — rare qualities that have enabled him to discover nuggets of valuable theoretical insight in the work of a wide array of economists, many of whom are generally thought to be far away from the Austrian tradition, which Boettke himself splendidly represents. Boettke’s prolific pen is dipped, not in the all-too-common ink of professional one-upmanship, but in the inkwell of an earnest, utterly benevolent — and brilliant — scholar, seeking, with all his intellectual integrity, to learn and to understand.
Many others have said the same: Bruce Yandle, Richard Wagner, Steve Hanke, Randall and dozens more. As you read through the tributes, you realize that these are more than coerced blurbs. Boettke has managed to make economists themselves re-excited about what they do. He will do the same for you, and help you appreciate the creativity, courage and sheer adventure associated with this grand craft that elucidates the workings of our world like no other.